Quotable courage — and yet another reason to read (as if you needed one more)

I’ve been beating the drum of risk-taking so hard for the last week that I needed a day to stop and change gears. Most of the work of writing, after all, occurs long before the submission stage, alone in the dark of night. Or light of day, depending upon your schedule.

So I was very pleased to stumble across a delightfully apt quote for aspiring writers this morning, courtesy of Anaïs Nin’s DIARY (Vol. 3, 1939-1944): “Life shrinks or expands in proportion to one’s courage.”

While I don’t think that’s always true — one is not, after all, the absolute center of the universe — it’s certainly true of trying to break into the publishing world. Opportunities do in fact expand for those courageous to keep pitching and querying.

The converse is also true: opportunities contract for those not willing to put their writing out there. As I pointed out in my recent series on SIOA-avoidance, too many writers reject their own work (by not Sending It Out, Already, for those of you who took Thanksgiving week off) before a soul in the industry has an opportunity to take a look at it.

Creative minds are uniquely qualified, unfortunately, to talk their owners out of taking the big risk. The what if? muscles in writers’ brains tend to be rather sophisticated, after all.

And, as Ruth Gordon informed us in L’OFFICIEL, courage, “like a muscle, it is strengthened by use.” (Oh, like you don’t go scurrying to your quote book when you find a good new one to add, and then start leafing through what’s already there…)

Again, true of both querying and submission: plenty of writers never get past the first rejection letter; it crushes them, because they read it as an entire industry’s — nay, and entire world’s! — rejection of what they have to say.

If you have fallen into this category for even twenty consecutive minutes, ever — and who among us hasn’t? — let me ask you to take on faith, at least provisionally, something I have learned from long, long experience: the 4th rejection hurts less than the first, and the 147th less than the 146th.

Believe it or not, the vast majority of writers who have landed agents and publishing contracts have had their work rejected dozens upon dozens — if not hundreds upon hundreds — of times over their professional lifetimes. Including yours truly. But we kept ploughing ahead until the industry started to take us seriously.

As Louise Nevelson wrote in DAWNS + DUSKS, “I think all great innovations are built on rejections.”

I’m not going to lie to you — it takes courage, and plenty of it, to keep querying and submitting your work to total strangers. And while I’m on a truth-telling binge, allow me to add: I think that those of us who don’t have to query anymore (i.e., already agented writers) and those who never had to query in the first place (agents, editors, pretty much everyone on the business side of the publishing industry) have a nasty habit of pretending that querying is just like sending out any other business letter.

It isn’t, of course; it requires facing down the naysayers in your own head and risking the rejection of people you do not yet know. Yet have you noticed how often speakers at writers’ conferences and writers of articles on querying imply that it’s the easiest thing in the world?

“There is plenty of courage among us for the abstract,” Helen Keller wrote in LET US HAVE FAITH, “but not for the concrete.”

Having been on both sides of this particular aisle, I’m here to tell you: tackling the day-to-day necessities of maintaining an ongoing querying campaign is much, much, MUCH more difficult than standing up and gassing about querying techniques from behind a podium. So the next time you’re at a conference being lectured about it, remember to pat yourself on the back a little for being braver than the speaker, in all probability.

Speaking of which: Spokane-area writers, I am going to be in that toddling town next week, on December 6th, giving a talk on reasons that manuscripts tend to get rejected to the Spokane Authors and Self-Publishers. Come to listen, ask questions, or just to graze at what I hear is a pretty spectacular buffet.

It is SO easy to forget whilst hiking the querying-and-submission trail that it honestly does take more courage on the part of an agent to sign a previously unpublished writer than a published one, just as it requires more bravery for an editor to take a chance on a brand-new writer than upon the 17th work by an established name.

This is why, in case you were wondering, those of us who have been in the biz for a while cringe when we hear an aspiring writer say, “Well, my book is at least as good as the rest of the junk out there.” The standard against which a new writer’s work is held is not that of the current market, contrary to popular belief, but considerably above it.

Don’t believe me? Try this little experiment: read five books by first-time authors in your chosen book category that have come out within the last year — then go and take a gander at what the time-honored leaders of the genre have put out lately. Do they honestly seem to be edited, let alone written, to the same standard?

It’s a good idea in general to get into the habit of reading the work of new authors in your book category, anyway, to keep abreast of what is being bought and sold recently — I can’t tell you how many times I’ve heard agents and editors complain about aspiring writers’ not being familiar with the current market, as opposed to what was hot ten years ago.

Besides, if you want to live in a world where publishers are eager to buy books like yours, it only makes sense to convey that preference through buying them yourself, right?

And if neither is incentive enough to spur you to curl up this winter with the latest offerings in your chosen book category, here’s another: reading first-time authors is a great way to pick up agent leads. As I’m sure you’re already aware (because I’m fairly certain that I’ve mentioned it within the last few months), the vast majority of books sold to publishers each year in this country are written by the already-published.

Why? Well, they have track records. And think about it: how often do you — or did you, prior to adopting the practice of actively seeking out first-time authors I suggested above — buy books by first-time authors?

Okay, what about ones you don’t know personally, or who haven’t won major awards?

Readers tend to gravitate toward names they know — and bookstores often encourage the practice. Unless the writer is a celebrity in another medium or a politician, such books are substantially less likely to be placed in a prominent position in a chain bookstore. Certainly, they are less likely to be place face-out on the bookshelf (which increases that probability of being browsed considerably). Naturally, this results in sales statistics that show very plainly that established authors sell better than new ones.

So your chances of getting picked up are higher if you already know a particular agent has been successful selling a first-timer like yourself. You know, at any rate, that the agent has been exceptionally brave at least once.

And wouldn’t you know it, Helen Keller has ANOTHER pithy statement that’s appropriate here, and from the same book? “Avoiding danger is no safer in the long run than outright exposure. The fearful are caught as often as the bold.” Are you listening, agents?

Because the agent who compulsively sells first novels is something of a rarity, let me once again urge you to draw a firm distinction in your mind between agents whose listings in the standard agents’ guides SAY they are open to queries from previously unpublished writers, and those who have a successful TRACK RECORD of selling first books.

As Abigail Adams seems to have written to her troublemaking husband in 1774, “We have too many high sounding words, and too few actions that correspond with them.” Amen, Abby!

To be fair, agents — the successful ones, anyway — only take on what they’re pretty sure they can sell. As anyone in the industry will tell you at great length after he’s had a few drinks (oh, like it’s accidental that writers’ conferences almost always take place in hotels with bars in them…As Agnes Repplier was prone to say, and even wrote in 1891’s POINTS OF VIEW, “If a man be discreet enough to take to hard drinking in his youth, before his general emptiness is ascertained, his friends invariable credit him with a host of shining qualities which, we are given to understand, lie balked and frustrated by his one unfortunate weakness.”), a first book, unless it is written by a celebrity, is quite a bit harder for an agent to pitch to a publisher than a second or third. On average, less than 4% of the fiction published in any given year is by first-time authors.

Sorry to be the one to break it to you. But as George Sand apparently wrote to some friend of hers in 1863, “Let us accept truth, even when it surprises us and alters our views.’” Or, if you prefer Thomas Jefferson, “We must not be afraid to follow the truth, wherever it may lead.”

I’m sure I could find a dozen more quotes on the subject if I really took a spade to the Bartlett’s, but I’m sure you catch my drift.

Tomorrow, I shall be talking about ways to translate your reading habit into querying leads — because while life may shrink or expand in proportion to one’s courage, chance also favors the prepared mind. Or so said Louis Pasteur.

What, you thought the boiling milk thing just came to him one day while he was thinking of something else? Keep up the good work!

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